NUGGETS

Michael Malone is finally getting what he wants on the defensive end

Nov 17, 2021, 6:00 AM
Aaron Gordon...
(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)
(Photo by Jamie Schwaberow/Getty Images)

Michael Malone has preached defense to the Nuggets since the day he arrived in Denver. It may have taken into his seventh season for that to materialize, but Malone finally has the elite defensive team he’s envisioned since 2015.

The Nuggets are second only to 11-2 Golden State in defensive efficiency to start the season, allowing opponents just 99 points per 100 possessions.

Denver’s playing the pick-and-roll better than they have at any time in the Malone era, and they’ve gotten better at it as the lineup has changed early in the season. Allowing less dribble penetration, and being more effective in closing out on three-point shooters with long, athletic lineups has helped push Denver to become a top-tier defense.

During their recent five-game win streak, no opponent reached 100 points, and in fact, none of the eight visitors to Ball Arena have been able to crack the century mark this season.

Now, the Nuggets need to learn to take that D on the road. Four of Denver’s five losses have come away from the Mile High City, and they’ve allowed more than 100 points in all of them.

The 122-110 loss in Utah was understandable when Nikola Jokic didn’t play in the second half of that game. Denver had chances to win twice in Memphis, but couldn’t keep Ja Morant out of the paint allowing 106 and 108 points in those two defeats.

Monday night in Dallas was another opportunity to lock down a Mavericks team they held to just 75 points in their first meeting of the season. But with Will Barton and Zeke Nnaji out, in addition to Michael Porter Jr., the Nuggets ran out of gas on the second night of a back-to-back and allowed 62 second-half points in a 111-101 defeat.

Part of the issue in Monday’s loss was the offense wasn’t helping, shooting just 9-of-32 from three-point land, allowing Dallas more transition opportunities. The Mavericks capitalized, finishing with 30 assists, a season-high allowed by the Denver defense.

It’s a make-or-miss league, and if you’re not making enough shots, as has been the case all too often early in the Nuggets season, you better make the other team miss.

The addition of Aaron Gordon last year helped unlock the Nuggets defensive potential. His ability to guard any position on the floor, and take on the league’s most dangerous offensive players has helped everyone else become better defenders. So much so that even the critics that always blasted Jokic’s defense are acknowledging he’s one of the absolute best in the league at defending the pick-and-roll this season.

Denver has the elite wing defender in Gordon. They’ve got their best player playing the best defense of his career. They’ve got more length and quickness in both their starting and bench line-ups when healthy than they’ve had in years past.

But the next step for the Nuggets, particularly the younger players in the rotation, is to learn how to take that elite defense on the road every night. That’ll make Denver tough to beat, no matter the venue.

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